Girls in Saudi Arabia will receive physical education lessons as part of the curriculum in public schools from next year, the country’s Education Ministry has announced.
The long-awaited reform was announced by Education Minister Ahmed al-Issa on Tuesday. Classes will be gradually implemented at public schools from September 2017, allowing schools time to make sure qualified teachers can be found and facilities upgraded.
Exercise for women is a controversial topic for many in the conservative country, where some religious authorities deem it immodest. Women are not even allowed to watch sports in which men participate, and PE lessons for girls are not offered by most schools.
The Saudi Shura Council, a government advisory body, approved the introduction of physical education for girls in schools in 2014 – but the decision faced opposition from clerics who decried it as “Westernisation”.
“I’m very happy with the issue of the decree and this is a historic day for all Saudi girls in the Kingdom,” Lina Almaeena, a Shura Council member who has worked for over 10 years to implement sports for girls in both public and private schools, told Saudi news website Arab News.
“We don’t have the logistics, location or setting and a decree such as this is not as easy as many believe it is… [but] I’m an optimist and rather than looking back, we should all look forward.”
Women in the Kingdom face myriad inequalities under Saudi law. Almost all their activities and movements must be monitored or approved by male guardians.
However, some restrictions have been loosened in recent years – women were allowed to vote for the first time in 2015, and further reforms have been promised under the rule of King Salman, who acceded to the throne two years ago.
The move to provide physical education for girls is part of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious ‘Vision 2030’, a raft of far-reaching reforms designed to modernise the Kingdom’s economy and wean it off its dependence on oil revenue.
Only 13 per cent of Saudis currently exercise at least once a week, the government says, which is partly to blame for high levels of obesity. Exercise for women has often been framed as a health issue in order to overcome conservative objections.